Asked what their favorite food is, New Yorkers may choose the hot dog, hamburger, pretzel or maybe pastrami sandwich. But ask Scott Wiener, food guide to the city, and for him there’s only one answer: Pizza.
New York, says Scott, has about 2,200 pizzerias. Some cities may have even more, maybe Napoli, or Sao Paolo, which is insane for pizza. But it’s New York that made pizza one of the leading global foods. In Napoli it’s considered food for poor people but New Yorkers will eat it any time, any day. They even created the “New York style pizza,” a round thing 45 centimeters in diameter with thin yet soft crust. New York was also the innovator of the idea of cutting pizzas into triangles, claims Wiener.
Pizza began its New York story in Little Italy, today still home to many a pizza joint, though most of the Italians have moved on and today the neighborhood is chiefly Chinese. The first pizzeria was Lombardi’s, which opened in the neighborhood in 1905. First owned by Gennaro Lombardi, the shop was eventually sold and moved, too, a flew blocks away to Soho.
It began as ‘pita’
Wiener, 35, was born in New Jersey and now lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn. He plays music in a rock band and dreamed of being a record producer. Life led him elsewhere, though: On his 26th birthday he rented a bus and took his friends for a tour of the places that sell his favorite food. It was a blast and thus, nine years back, the vision of the Pizza Tour was born.
Today he has six employees and holds 15 tours a week during summer, half that many in winter. A tour by-foot costs $40, a bus tour $65 but ranges farther. The price includes pizza tastings at each spot. Wiener has already bought himself an apartment with his earnings from the idea.
I joined the tour hosted by guide Mike Albanese, a stand-up comic of Sicilian origin. We were in the area of Bleecker Street in the Village. It was a cold winter day and about 20 people came for the tour. Most were tourists, the rest local pizza freaks. Standing on the pavement, Albanese described the history of pizza and I discover that its name is a distortion of the word “pita.”
He started the tour at John’s Of 278 Bleecker Street,which opened in 1929 and still uses the same coal oven. The coal is brought from northeast Pennsylvania. John’s pizza is made using “wet” mozzarella and fresh tomatoes. Albanese sticks an electronic thermometer into the oven and discovers it’s at 550 degrees Celsius.
We cross the street to Keste, which sells Neapolitan-style pies, which Mike says are more sophisticated. Everything is made in-house from scratch and the gigantic oven was imported especially from Naples. It can reach 650 degrees and the pizza is done within minutes.
Keste’s pizza is doughier and, truth be told, it wasn’t very hot, but that was deliberate – using fresh mozzarella, they don’t want the customers burning their mouths on the cheese. I spot a jar of Nutella and am informed that it’s used to make a delicious dessert pizza.
On 7 Carmine Street is the Joe’s Pizza branch where the young Spiderman worked as a delivery boy. Their pizza’s pretty great. We move onto Fiore’s, which bakes its pizza inside metal. It tastes fantastic but the truth is, not more than a lot of other pizzas like it in the city.
Between bites on pizza tours, one discusses pizza’s cultural ramifications. For instance, should one eat the slice using one’s hands, or knife and fork? To Albanese, there is only one answer and it isn’t cutlery. Once, before he was president, Donald Trump was caught eating pizza using knife and fork, which Jon Stewart lampooned. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio also committed the sin and made a joke of himself.
The ultimate way to eat a slice of pizza, according to Albanese, is to fold it in half, so none of the cheese or toppings slide off, and the grease doesn’t drip onto your clothes.
The expert’s picks
So which pizzerias does Wiener recommend? Well, every New Yorker has his favorite. Wiener suggests going to places blessed with long lines. But he will share some tips. He likes starting pizza tours at Lombardi’s in Soho, and also likes the Soho establishment Arturo’s. On the Upper East Side, he has a weakness for Patsy’s on First Avenue, where the crust is paper thin and the oven coal-fired.
If you’re into thin and crunchy dough, Wiener urges you to try Rubirosa, a relatively new place on Mulberry Street in Soho. Joe’s Pizza in the Village is also terrific and very New York. If you are prepared to venture to Brooklyn, there’s Grimaldi’s or Juliana’s – or Totonno’s, dating from 1924 and founded by a former Lombardi’s employee. Brooklyn also features Di Fara, which opened in 1965 and isn’t the best known, but it’s still under its original management and has maintained authenticity. Or there’s Roberta’s, a super-fashionable place with good pizza, long lines and a price of $15 per pie.